The Best Restaurant in New York Is: The Bronx Zoo
Caity: The number one rule of the Bronx Zoo is that you must refer to all the animals you see there as being "from the block." Zebra from the block. Field mouse from the block.
Rich: Golden lion tamarin from the block. I wanted more animals with switchblades and cans of spray paint.
The best restaurant in New York is
Dancing Crane Café (plus Dippin' Dots cart) at the Bronx Zoo
À la carte
Cost, including two adult General Admission zoo tickets:
Caity: At the ticket counter, I tried to pull an EPCOT maneuver—a tactic by which, according to a rumor I heard or started, free admittance to the EPCOT World Showcase is granted if you tell the ticket vendors you are simply going to eat at one of the restaurants and leave.
Rich: "I promise. You do run your business on the honor system, don't you?"
Caity: The woman dispensing tickets was very friendly but did not allow us to enter the zoo for free, based on pacts. My first complaints of the day are 1) that the Bronx Zoo needs to better educate its employees about the EPCOT maneuver and 2) that Bronx Zoo employees need to learn how to trust.
Caity: We paid roughly $16 apiece for two General Admission tickets, which did not include entry to the Dinosaur Safari: Mysteries Revealed. Although they were never revealed to us, the mysteries of the dino safari consumed our thoughts for the rest of the day.
Rich: First of all, what mysteries are still out there about dinos? Do THEY like Laura Dern as much as SHE likes THEM?
Caity: The Bronx Zoo really must run their business on the honor system. Otherwise, all the mysteries revealed on the dinosaur safari would be public knowledge by now.
Rich: The joke that everyone makes—from Frederick Wiseman to the director of Madagascar to you, Caity Weaver, as soon as we entered the zoo—is that people are on display and offer as much to look at as the animals. Really, the people were more memorable than the animals.
Caity: In front of me when I purchased our tickets: A man who sounded exactly like Bobby Brown, and a heavily pregnant woman I assume was his wife. 1 pm on a Tuesday in June. 90° and humid. Perfect time for a relaxing four hour walking tour of the Bronx Zoo.
Rich: We put on sunscreen soon after entering, which entertained all 1,000 children that walked by with their mouths hanging open. One kid asked me how we were today and I said, "WHAT!" accusatorially. I thought he wanted to beef.
Caity: Shortly after we stepped inside the gates, a woman yelled to us from a couple hundred yards away, "ARE THERE ANY GIRAFFES OVER THERE?" I called back, "No, but there are zebras!" And she didn't care about those.
Rich: If you can't see giraffe, it isn't near you. That's the good thing about giraffes. Can't sneak up on you.
The amazing thing is how few animals you will actually see if you are not trying to see any animals and are, say, only interested in visiting Dancing Crane Café.
Rich: The zebras were unavoidable, yes. We saw some giraffes and ostriches co-existing peacefully over our shoulders in the distance at one point, but that's it. Until I dragged you into the Mouse House. I have a lot to say about the Mouse House.
There is a poem outside of it that basically justifies its existence. Here is the final stanza:
While you marvel at the mouse,
please consider all its talents—
It feeds the fox, the owl and the hawk;
it helps keeps nature's balance.
Although you may not want to see
this creature in your house,
Remember that this edifice
is dedicated to the Mouse.
Consider the mouse's talents: things eat it. It continues to exist, and, in doing so, does not collapse the food chain. That's a fine animal! That's talent! That's something I want to look at variations of running around skittishly in tanks in a darkened room while children shriek, "It's got an ugly face! IT'S GOT AN UGLY FAAAAAAAACE!!!"
Caity: I'd rather hear them shriek that about a mouse than about me.
Rich: I'm sure if they thought your face was ugly, they would have told you. The Bronx Zoo is that kind of place.
Caity: The Mouse House freaked me out because I couldn't stop thinking about how the mouse in her small fake desert cube had no idea of the vastness of the world beyond it. Her whole universe was actually just one small climate-controlled cube in one corridor of climate-controlled cubes in one section of the Mouse House—itself a small and comparatively uninteresting part of a larger zoo, itself a relatively small portion of the Bronx, and on and on to infinity. And then we had to leave the Mouse House because my eyeballs started bleeding.
Rich: The universe is millions of light years wide. Tell me that doesn't make you want to throw up.
Speaking of things that made me want to throw up: The skunk pacing frantically in his cube left me SUPER depressed. Like, that's why I hate zoos. I know they do good work, attempting to rehabilitate species that are decimated, but I just don't think there's very much to learn from them that you can't in much greater detail via a National Geographic special AND you get to see those animals in unconfined spaces. It's gonna take a while before I shake that image of the pacing skunk. He was a neurotic mess. At least give him some smokes. Put 'em in tampon applicators and hand them to him all secret-like.
And also, I realized that given the high populations of children and animals at the zoo, you can never be sure whose smell is whose. It's a vile place.
Caity: As we walked into Dancing Crane café, we passed by a table of two tween girls unpacking lunches they'd brought from home. I felt cool. I felt grown-up and rich. "I've got money to burn, ladies. I'm just going to walk in there and BUY my lunch."
Even if their lunch boxes had been empty they would have had a better lunch than we did.
Rich: Even if their lunch boxes had been on fire, they would have had a better lunch than we did.
Caity: Outside Dancing Crane Café was a menu outlining the plats du jour, which included a "Gourmet Cheese Stuffed Pretzel" (from the block).
Rich: When I saw the display, I gasped, "THEY HAVE HALE AND HEARTY SOUP?" I don't know why that excited me so much, as Hale and Hearty is all over New York. And it was, as you said, 90° out. But it did excite me. So I got it.
I also ordered pizza, of course. The board with the prices said that you could "add topping $1." I asked the young woman behind the counter what that topping might be other than the pepperoni pictured, because surely they were keeping it vague for a reason, and she said, "Pepperoni…and that's it, I believe." What other toppings might be hiding back there? Maybe the dinosaurs reveal that mystery.
Caity: I asked her: "Cheeseburger or chicken tenders—what do you recommend?" And she said, "I say...cheeseburger." Now, maybe she thought I was asking for her opinion in general ("If you went out to a great restaurant, which of these would you get?") but there is no way in hell anything served at Dancing Crane Café could have been worse than the cheeseburger I got. It tasted like a cheeseburger from a public pool concession stand that someone had dropped in a kiddie pool and then served anyway, citing the three second rule. It tasted gray.
I also attempted to convey with words my desire to purchase the special cheese-stuffed pretzel, but somehow we ended up with a pretzel that was stuffed with pretzel dough.
Rich: Best thing we ordered, though.
Caity: Definitely. Biting into it, I felt like how a dog must feel when it tears open a plush chew toy, expecting warm, wet guts to come spilling out, and then realizes all that's inside is dry, fluffy stuffing ("Oh."), but it was a perfectly regular soft pretzel.
Rich: My pizza had a Domino's feel and an assy taste. My tomato soup was worse. It tasted like it had been transported from a Manhattan Hale & Hearty by animals who couldn't keep their paws out of it and who took three years to complete their journey. It was kinda stale.
Caity: I had a spoonful. It tasted like hot ketchup water.
Rich: When we ordered our drinks, the young woman asked, "With ice?" Excuse me, ma'am, do I SOUND European to you?
Caity: I thought she thought we looked cheap (my dad orders drinks without ice so that you have more room for the soda), so I waffled and said "Uh...a little bit of ice." Quite frankly, ma'am, I will take anything you hand me. Even if it is a pretzel I did not order. Even if it is a burger made of napkins you found in the trash.
While we were eating at our table in the shade, a little boy at the table next to us threw a granola bar at another little boy. That little boy then picked up the same granola bar and used it to swat his attacker on the butt. It was bedlam. Granola bar everywhere, except it was just the one granola bar.
Rich: We also saw a nasty little child run up to a duck—one of the few animals nice enough to come out and mingle—and *STOMP* next to it, sending the duck scrambling. People: They're just like us animals.
Caity: Here are the two things no one will tell you about the dining options at the Bronx Zoo:
Number one: If you're going to eat the inedible food, don't do it at Dancing Crane café. Do it at Somba Village, located near Baboon Reserve, which has better ambience and an expanded menu. (Expanded by one item: falafel.) (But still.)
Rich: It's where the peacocks roam. Don't want to say much more than that. Keep it a mystery. Like a dinosaur. (That being said, if you're going to make a meal of the zoo food, you might as well swallow razor blades and eat ice.)
Caity: Number two: The concentration of ice cream vendors per square mile is one of the densest on Earth. I have never been in a place with more opportunities to buy ice cream. Every 5 feet you can buy ice cream.
Rich: You can't not eat ice cream at the Bronx Zoo.
Caity: So we didn't not do that. After our meal, for reasons too esoteric to get into here, we eschewed the sundae shop located within the Dancing Crane Café, and instead marched back to a small Dippin' Dots stand we had passed on the way in.
Rich: Dippin' Dots cups come in three sizes: Kiddie, Regular, and LOL, which stands for Lots of Layers.
Caity: I laughed at "LOL" harder than I've laughed at anything in months. Dippin' Dots cups come in three sizes: Kiddie, Regular, and ASDGSHJGHAJFAJSDFKHS.
I laughed so hard I felt like I was going to throw up.
Rich: Zoo food'll do that, one way or another
The sundaes, which we both got, came in only one size, and were just kind of haphazardly strewn with sweet crap that didn't necessarily make sense. ("You know how some places deep fry anything? Well we flash-freeze anything!") That didn't stop me from ordering one made out of banana split Dippin' Dots (?), mini M&M's (?!?!) and chocolate sauce.
Caity: Due to a dearth of some ingredients and a surplus of others, I created my own sundae from the handful of pre-chosen options given. Mine consisted of: Vanilla Dippin' Dots, Oreo crumbles, Butterfinger crumbles, and what tasted like four pounds of whipped cream. I would say that for the first minute I ate my sundae, I did not have a bite that included an ingredient other than whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
But I ate it happily because that Dippin' Dots employee was the sweetest and most helpful employee at the zoo. She was a star. Also her Dippin' Dots hovel reminded me of the Mouse House.
Rich: You liked her more than I did. I thought she was a little off. Nice enough, but I felt like being in that box and practically mainlining freon was fucking her up. Not her fault, but I wouldn't go back to the zoo just to see her.
Is Everything Okay?
Questions about the Dining Experience
Would you go back?
Caity: I would go back to Dancing Crane Café, but only to dissuade people from entering it. You're better off catching one of the wild animals and roasting it over a trashcan.
Rich: I'll go back when they let that poor pacing skunk free. FREE PACEY!
Is it a good first date spot?
Caity: No. While a date would no doubt be impressed that you are wealthy enough to buy food at a 5,000,000% mark-up, the sheer volume of misbehaving kids makes a compelling argument for dying alone.
Rich: No. It's too early to be introducing smells like that into a relationship, unless you're certain that this is THE ONE.
Is it a good place to have an affair?
Caity: It's a great place to have an affair with your child's teacher ("Sure, I'll chaperone") and an even better place to take your pregnant mistress for a relaxing midday 90° hike in platform sandals.
Rich: No! Everyone's looking at you always, and everyone's waiting for the animals (or whatever) to fuck always!
Is it a good place to bring a doll?
Caity: It's a good place to LOSE a doll, and I'm not going to keep buying you dolls if you leave them places. Leave her in the car, Kaylinn.
Rich: Yes. It's a good place to bring a doll, and it's a good place for an animal to eat a doll that you accidentally dropped in its cage because it's a good place to learn this life lesson: animals will eat whatever shit you throw at them. That, at least, explains our lunch.
There are a bunch of restaurants in the world, including some in New York City. But in a city of over 24,000 restaurants, how do you find the best? You begin your search in places that are already popular: New York's hottest tourist destinations. In The Best Restaurant in New York Is, writers Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak attempt to determine the best restaurant in New York.
Previously: The Best Restaurant in New York Is: The Armani Store; The Crown Cafe at the Statue of Liberty; The Campbell Apartment inside Grand Central; The U.N. Delegates Dining Room; Play at the Museum of Sex; Le Train Bleu inside Bloomingdales; LOX at The Jewish Museum; The American Girl Café
[Images via Rich Juzwiak]